Thursday, March 17, 2011

The Touch of a Woman

Unless you’ve been living under a rock, you’ve probably heard of a novel called The Help, by Kathryn Stockett. It’s been on the New York Times Fiction Bestseller List for a staggering 102 weeks (as of 3/27/11), and has been optioned by Steven Spielberg. Stockett has rocketed to literary celebrity, but The Help’s success has also put another name on the map—that of Amy Einhorn.

In the twenty years since she graduated from Stanford, Einhorn has amassed a formidable résumé that should inspire even the most forlorn editorial assistant; she began at FSG and rose all the way up to Editor-in-Chief at Hachette behemoth Grand Central Publishing. However, a few years ago Penguin approached her with an offer that I don’t think anyone could refuse—that of her own imprint. She moved to 375 Hudson Street in 2007, and launched Amy Einhorn Books in 2009.

And what a launch it was: The Help was one of the imprint’s first titles, boasting a simply intertwined lower-case “a” and “e” logo on its spine. It must have been a hard act to follow, but several of Einhorn’s more recent books, such as The Postmistress and The Weird Sisters, have also hit the list (though admittedly not with the soaring staying power of The Help).

With its record of stunning success, Amy Einhorn Books is firmly established as an imprint. In fact, I think Amy Einhorn Books is more accurately described as a brand, in that the presence of its logo seems to function as a Good Housekeeping Seal for readers—last year, a group of bloggers kicked off the “Amy Einhorn Perpetual Reading Challenge” on Twitter, encouraging people to read their way through the entire catalog. Although a mix of fiction and nonfiction, her titles share common sensibilities despite their varying subjects, and readers seem to have picked up on this identifiable aesthetic.

Amy Einhorn Books, however, is far from the first eponymous boutique imprint to be helmed by a female editor. Nan A. Talese Books (Doubleday), Reagan Arthur Books (Little, Brown), and Sarah Crichton Books (FSG) are some of its most recognizable predecessors, all founded by women who are venerated in publishing circles for their charisma and talent. I don’t think you’d have to throw a stone too far to hit a young editrix with a small “woman-crush” on, say, Reagan (ahem).

It’s interesting to consider the brand power of these imprints alongside their function within the larger context of their parent house/imprint. Once upon a time, there was a Nelson Doubleday; a Roger Straus, a John Farrar, and a Robert Giroux; an Alfred A. Knopf; a Charles Scribner; a Charles Coffin Little and a James Brown. One can easily forget that the imprints bearing these names were once small ventures, too, each defined by the personality and editorial taste of their founders. But will their trajectory of growth and power be followed by this new school of lady imprints? In fifty years, will we be referring just to “Talese” and “Arthur”? Will “Einhorn” in its turn be a maternal umbrella for other smaller imprints?

Equally worthy of discussion is whether or not there will space in the industry for my publishing generation to produce its own personality-driven imprints in twenty years’ time. Despite the success of Einhorn and Arthur, there is also a trend now towards more concept-oriented imprints, like Twelve and the short-lived HarperStudio. Are ideas, rather than people, now the bigger draw?

What also intrigues me is that both of these imprints were started by men. Given that the industry’s biggest houses and imprints are named after men, is it now considered un-politically correct by the industry for a younger generation of male editors to found new imprints boasting their names? Or does this difference stem from the common theory that women read more books, especially more fiction, than do men, and therefore that a name-brand imprint led by a woman has more influence in the marketplace?

I raise all these questions not to provide rhetorical flourishes, but because I honestly can’t answer them. I don’t think anyone really can. I just hope that Amy and Reagan and Nan and Sarah continue to rock on, and allow their taste to sing out loudly in this crowded bookstore of a world.

No comments:

Post a Comment